During the gloomy times of the prevailing pandemic, a silver lining has been the positive impact that national lockdowns have had on the environment. Many of us have marveled at the canals and the skies being clearer than they have been for years, while videos showing animals roaming boldly through locked-town cities have proliferated on social media. However, we should not be complacent as the climate crisis remains a considerable threat which could yet intensify as we return to business as usual. In particular, we need to build sustainability into our built environment, which accounts for a staggering percentage of our carbon footprint. With progress on vaccines promising an eventual end to the health crisis, attention must shift towards the environmental one which still looms. Building on developments seen during the pandemic, we can make our homes healthier, our workplaces more energy efficient, and our travel more sustainable, addressing the urgent need for change at speed while also building a greener future that we all need. As the number of coronavirus infections grew exponentially worldwide, restrictive public health measures to stave off a worsening pandemic were put in place in most other countries around the world. With entire populations ordered to stay home, schools, offices and factories limited their activities and road traffic dwindled to a minimum. The good news is that Covid-19 has highlighted several steps we can take to effect real change.

Sustainable Homes

With unprecedented numbers of people working from home in recent months, the question of our homes’ sustainability has rightly risen up the agenda. Residential construction must accommodate these new priorities with the new technology at their disposal. We need smart homes which can manage their own environmental impact to a significant extent. Intelligent central heating units can minimize energy wastage automatically, while advanced air quality control system can keep our domestic environment healthy to live in. In cities where most of the CO2 emissions come from homes and workplaces, smart building technology could generate significant environmental improvements.

Greener Urban Structures

Greenery can be incorporated into our urban settings, and even into buildings themselves. For example, latest technology allows us to skin structures with algae compounds that absorb pollutants in the atmosphere and provide a sustainable biofuel source that will reduce the environmental and financial cost of powering our buildings. Moreover, using natural substances like the mushroom fungus mycelium, we can grow these structures without producing any waste.

Touch-less Technology 

Covid-19 has necessitated a new impetus in the development of touchless technology such as motion sensors, which have provided a valuable means of monitoring occupancy within buildings. Post-pandemic, this technology will remain useful for building managers looking to optimize the energy efficiency of their facilities. Motion sensor technology can track footfall throughout buildings in real time, alerting managers to underuse areas where heating and lighting may be wasted. Furthermore, smart facilities management systems can even address this wastage automatically, cutting costs as well as buildings’ carbon footprints.

Innovative Solutions

Embracing innovative solutions is vital for improving the energy efficiency of properties. Utilizing low-energy design principles such as natural ventilation and high thermal mass may reduce emissions by 60 percent. And with deadlines for sustainability targets approaching, similar improvements to buildings throughout the globe are urgently needed.

Green Transport

Concerns about Covid-19 have understandably prompted an increasing number of people to abandon public transport in favour of alternative means of travel such as walking and cycling. Studies saw a fivefold increase in online sales of bikes at the height of the health crisis, reflecting a sea-change in attitudes. Urban planners should support this change in the long term, providing non-motorists with a more equitable share of our roadways, as well as improving access to public realm outdoor space for those who walk, run, and cycle recreationally. For the sake of the environment, as well as public health, those anxious about public transport must be offered an alternative to increasing their use of personal vehicles.

Renewable Energy

Solving the personal vehicle pollution problem will need more than just electric cars, as these innovations will be unsustainable without the overhaul of infrastructure required to support them. We need to meet growing demand for green electricity by exploring innovative solutions. Harnessing solar power in homes, for example, would empower individuals to become more self-sufficient and even sell surplus energy into the grid.

Sustainable Construction

Fast, flexible, and environmentally conscious offsite modern construction methods can improve efficiency by saving more than 75 percent in building time. Modular construction has already enabled schools and hospitals increase their capacity in the wake of Covid-19, showcasing many of the benefits which make modular a sustainable means of construction. Prefabricated structures for example are produced in a factory setting, drastically reducing onsite building time and all the air and noise pollution that entails.  Moreover, manufacture in a factory setting reduces the environmental impact of construction, either by recycling waste material into new projects, or by using more eco-friendly materials in the first place, such as approved timber and sustainably sources steel. With the construction sector currently consuming tons of natural resources per year, wider adoption of modular construction would bring welcome environmental benefits. 

Reduced Greenhouse Emissions

While these developments have inflicted substantial economic and social shocks as global production, consumption and employment levels dropped precipitously, they have also been associated with significant reductions in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, air quality levels in the world’s major cities improved dramatically largely because of a reduction in factory and road traffic emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and related ozone (O3) formation, and particulate matter (PM). Taken together, these emissions reductions have led to a temporary dip in CO2 emissions from their pre-crisis levels, encouraging some to hope that our global society may indeed be able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions substantially over the long term to mitigate impending climate change. So long as the coronavirus crisis keeps economic activities reduced, emissions will remain relatively low. However, it would be short-sighted to conclude this is a durable environmental improvement as emissions will most likely rise to previous levels when economic activity picks up as the crisis resolves. Many environmentalists hold that bailout packages for transportation companies and industrial manufacturers include provisions for large emissions reductions in their future operations. Such provisions could help prevent pollutant emission levels from rising to pre-crisis levels going forward.

The Dilemmas

Not all the environmental consequences of the crisis have been positive. Volumes of unrecyclable waste have risen; severe cuts in agricultural and fishery export levels have led to the generation of large quantities of organic waste; maintenance and monitoring of natural ecosystems have been temporarily halted; and tourism activity to natural areas has ceased. Many municipalities have suspended their recycling activities over fears of virus propagation in recycling centers. Food retailers have resumed using plastic bags at checkout points citing health concerns over consumers’ reuse of paper bags. In addition, due to stay-at-home policies, many consumers have increased their consumption of take-away food delivered with single-use packaging. All these developments have created acute challenges for the waste management industry at a time when they are operating with limited capacity due to the coronavirus crisis. With the emergence of import restrictions in export markets and sharp declines in the availability of cargo transportation services, the coronavirus crisis affects environment as many export-oriented producers produce volumes far too large for output to be absorbed in local markets, and thus organic waste levels have mounted substantially. Because this waste is left to decay, levels of methane (CH4) emissions, a greenhouse gas, from decaying produce are expected to rise sharply in the crisis and immediate post-crisis scenario.

Risks to the Ecosystems

Natural ecosystems have also been affected during the coronavirus crisis. In many countries, environmental protection workers at national parks and land and marine conservation zones are required to stay at home in lockdown, leaving these areas unmonitored. Their absence has resulted in the stoppage of ecotourism activity and has also left natural ecosystems at risk of illegal harvesting and encroachment. In addition, as ecotourism is often a major economic mainstay in many destinations, rising unemployment caused by the crisis has given rise to unsustainably as they seek alternative means to provide their households with food and income. Many of the environmental challenges caused by the coronavirus crisis will gradually resolve on their own once the crisis comes to an end and previous levels of economic activity resume.

Need for action

Despite the temporary environmental healing, it is also true that the benefits of air pollution reductions will also be erased. Overall, the crisis may thus have no permanent environmental effects. However, what we have learned about the environmental benefits and risks of sharp drops in global economic activity will certainly help us to better understand the mechanics of environmental sustainability, societal consumption patterns, and how we can reduce environmental degradation in a future crisis-free world. Attention must be given to threats on the environment and natural resource bases as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and consequential social and economic impacts. Many rural and coastal populations rely on the sustainable use of the local environment and its natural resources whether they be small-holder farmers, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) involved in the production of BioTrade, forestry and fishery products and ecotourism services. As the crisis causes disruptions in their linkages to both national and international demand-side markets, rural producers, of whom many are women supporting entire households, are now no longer able to fully maintain their business models and livelihoods. If the crisis is prolonged, many will be forced to abandon existing sustainable production in order to generate income quickly in domestic markets, potentially resulting in further poverty and over-exploitation of natural resources and ecosystems. So helping rural and coastal producers to adapt to crisis market conditions and take actions for recovery and improved performance in post-crisis markets is a top priority.

Post pandemic, we should be ready to assist stakeholders from governments, producer associations, SMEs, MSMEs, independent producers (including women entrepreneurs) and civil society to elaborate coronavirus adaptation and resilience strategies. Actions taken by producers pursuant to such strategies can help maintain subsistence income levels, while ensuring the sustainable management of agricultural, forestry, marine and biodiversity-rich ecosystems. Such strategies are expected to be based on enhanced collaboration by affected producers and public support entities in order to adjust to new market realities. To be effective, such assistance needs to be implemented as soon as travel restrictions are eased. Follow-up activities should later be provided to assist countries to restore their businesses when the crisis comes to an end. Our support should include methodologies for market assessment and trade-related responses as well as means to re-forge direct linkages with sourcing businesses interested in restoring a sustainable flow of natural inputs. We can also make many smart investments to avert another outbreak. Federal, state, and local agencies can support public health leadership and science, we can provide more funding for needed research, early response to outbreaks, and supplies for testing. And we can do much more to control the illegal wildlife trade. We also need to take climate action to prevent the next pandemic. For example, preventing deforestation, a root cause of climate change, can help stem biodiversity loss as well as slow animal migrations that can increase risk of infectious disease spread. The Ebola epidemic in West Africa probably occurred in part because bats, which carried the disease, had been forced to move into new habitats because the forests they used to live in had been cut down to grow palm oil trees. Rethinking our agricultural practices, including those that rely on raising tens of millions of animals in close quarters, can prevent transmissions between animals and spillover into human populations. Reducing air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas also helps keep our lungs healthy, which can protect us from respiratory infections like coronavirus. To combat climate change, we need to drastically decrease greenhouse gas emissions. Generating electricity from low-carbon energy sources like wind and solar should be alternatively used to decrease harmful air pollutants so that we can avoid further strains on our health care systems in future.

About Zahid Shaukat

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